Mentoring, Editing and Beta Reading

I often read LinkedIn articles by a gentleman named Nick Caldwell, who is the Vice President of Engineering at Reddit. Today I came across a gem he’d posted about the Mentor/Mentee relationship. I recommend you go check his article out here and then come back. If you aren’t a member of LinkedIn, try reading the article on Medium, here.


Often there are parallels in things I do, read and see…and in philosophies others share, and it’s easy for me to look beyond what they’re saying to other applications of their ideas which is what I’ve done with my career discipline of Project Management, showcased in my series “Everything’s a Project (and Everyone’s a Project Manager.” Nick’s article is no exception. Though what he wrote is skewed toward a corporate or work environment, I believe that the mentor/mentee relationship applies to the beta reader/writer or editor/writer relationship as well. These are arenas with which I am just as familiar as I am with the business world, because I wrote fan fiction from the time I was a preteen (not very often, anymore, but it used to be my passion in days gone by). As an adult I have written award-winning novels (my very first published book took home a Best Speculative Fiction award) and am currently publishing the above-referenced series about Project Management. So it occurred to me that what Nick’s talking about applies to all types of mentor/mentee relationships, and the beta reader/writer and/or editor/writer relationship is but one of many flavors.


The gist of Nick’s conclusions is that the mentee (or writer, to parallel) is in the driver’s seat of the mentor/mentee relationship, and that is a revelation that I know will shock most people who sit in an editor’s chair or a beta reader’s chair. Editors and beta readers often think they are in the position of power, that it’s their voice which will ultimately decide the way a piece of writing goes and should be doing so. Now, in the old days that was probably more true, because editors for the big traditional publishers could rip a book to shreds and leave it unrecognizable to the author by the time it hit bookstore shelves. But in today’s day and age, though they may still be doing that at brick and mortar publishing companies, it’s not really the case anymore with all the self-publishing that we see. In other words, for good or for bad it’s the authors’ voices who are at last being heard, rather than the editors’. And that represents a major shift that I hope we start seeing also in the mentor/mentee world.


Let me take a side trip for the uninitiated into the fan fiction world: beta reading is sort of a first-swipe look at a completed and supposedly ready-for-primetime story vs. editing which is full-blown red-penning everything from spelling and grammar to plot holes and mischaracterization, although most fanfic writers don’t even think about “editing” when it comes to the stories they write. I could author a whole other series of articles on the fact that many beta readers and writers I have known over the years still haven’t gotten it through their heads that beta reading and editing aren’t the same thing. Whoever wrote the information in Wikipedia has ‘beta reader’ correctly defined:
A beta reader is a test reader of an unreleased work of literature or other writing (similar to beta testing in software), giving feedback with the angle of an average reader to the author about remaining issues.
Also, whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry for ‘editing’ got it right:
Editing is the process of selecting and preparing written, visual, audible, and film media used to convey information. The editing process can involve correction, condensation, organization, and many other modifications performed with an intention of producing a correct, consistent, accurate and complete work.
Notice how a beta reader is like a beta tester for new software in that you’re meant to give feedback with (although I would’ve used the word ‘from’ there) the angle of an average reader, to the author, about any issues that you see. In the Information Technology (IT) world, your users are sitting down and having a first crack at the software you created to let you know what they think of it. A beta reader can tell a writer if they have a lot of misspelled words, or their grammar needs work, or “I can’t figure out how this guy started out here and wound up over there” or “OMG, that character would never do that!” Parallel: A software beta tester can tell the programmer that they have a lot of misspelled words or their font is too small or “I can’t figure out how to get to the FAQ” or “OMG it took five minutes for that page to load!”


An editor – and a software analyst – is much more technical. The editor’s the one who takes actual red pen to your story or book, rearranging sentences, fixing dangling participles and going through the painstaking effort of figuring out why this scene or that story line just doesn’t make sense. The software analyst (or sometimes a business analyst, technical analyst or the programmer himself) goes through the code and determines if it meets HTML5 guidelines, or if the header information should be lower on the screen or running through the painstaking effort of determining if the software fits a logical and complete workflow.


I would argue that as with software, any piece of writing should have gone through one or more editors (programmers/analysts) before it gets to a beta reader (beta tester), because a beta is basically User Acceptance Testing, or UAT as we Project Managers call it, and you don’t do UAT until after the thing’s been built and tested and the folks who made it think it’s perfect!


But back to the mentor/mentee or beta reader/writer relationship: Neither Nick in his article nor me in this one are purporting that one party is correct over another. This is about being realistic regarding what a mentor’s job is (giving advice or feedback born of their experience, perspective and knowledge) and what a mentee is likely to be doing (not just going to that one person for feedback but doing what actually makes the most sense, which is gathering many peoples’ input). Even when you give people facts – you spelled a word incorrectly, your sentence structure is wrong, you missed these five numbers when you made your pie chart for the presentation at work, you need to include all five business teams in your analysis of the problem…it’s still up to the seeker what to do with that information. In many cases at work, just as with an editor, there is hands-down no question that a critique or claim is 100% factually correct but as we have seen ad nauseum in today’s day and age, not everyone is interested in letting facts interfere in their life!


Beyond giving people the facts, the acts of mentoring, beta reading and editing become subjective, and in my opinion there is nothing as subjective as writing. Structure, grammar, spelling…these things are objective, meaning they are unquestionably things that can be pointed to as fail points in any given piece of writing. Characterization is also pretty foolproof given years and years of documented psychological characteristics For example, a man who saves a bunch of others’ lives day in and day out anonymously – neither wanting accolades nor payment for his heroics – is not going to be a drug addict, alcoholic or serial killer because his life to date and what he has dedicated his life to, would not produce that sort of outcome even on the off chance he was genetically predisposed. This is why people study serial killers, and publish books about what influences how a person turns out…these things are pretty well known. You’d have to have an awfully convincing argument for how the person I just described actually kills people every night though he is saving people during the day (perhaps he’s possessed by a demon every sunset and has no recollection of his nocturnal deeds when he wakes…or maybe he saves people by day as atonement for the compulsive murders he commits at night…those would work).


Even work mentorships can be subjective. An Executive Vice President I’m aware of offers herself as a mentor to up-and-coming young women who are on a leadership track. That that particular EVP doesn’t actually know the business of the area she’s in charge of, pushing everything off to the VP who reports to her. Yet she still managed to become an EVP. So from her mentee’s point-of-view, if the mentee wants to climb the corporate ladder no matter what, then she’s got a good mentor, no? But if the mentee is looking how to really learn the business of whatever that EVP’s in charge of, she’ll find this EVP a poor teacher. Likewise in writing, it’s good to have someone to make your basic story structure sound, but then then you stray into subjective territory. Just because your editor or beta reader wouldn’t do it that way doesn’t make it wrong. Vice-versa, just because you tell your writer she needs to change something doesn’t mean she now must do what you said.


My point is that when we are called to be of service to others, by sharing our knowledge, experience and compassion, we are not also then automatically in charge or in control of what the people we coach and mentor do with what we’ve given them. I often remind myself and others of this principle by sharing that when I give money to someone begging on a street corner, what he or she does with those three dollars is none of my concern. While many people will refuse to give that person money because “they’ll just buy booze with it” or “they won’t use it for what they really need,” I say that what matters is that I chose to give without thinking I also had the right to tell that individual what to do with it. If I give a guy ten bucks and he goes and gets wasted on heroin, that is his karma and his responsibility, not mine. My karma is that I gave selflessly with no expectation of return.


Louise Hay, may she rest in peace, offered her advice to help others. She didn’t follow it up by telling you that you’re a bonehead for not following her teachings, or shaming you for still having that psoriasis even though she told you how to get rid of it with affirmations. Tony Robbins doesn’t identify your pain point and tell you how to fix it, and then follow that up by chastising you for not doing what he told you to. Don’t take this the wrong way, but he has better things to do than worry about what you do: he’s far too busy helping the next person to waste his time trying to control your life! Plus he knows that it’s up to you what you do with his words.


All of this hearkens back to my very firm belief that none of us has any right to control what anyone else does, says or writes…nor to shame or chastise them if they do the thing we said not to do and there are negative consequences. That is their learning curve. It is each of our individual karmas, fates and destinies which dictates our paths. We may choose to seek advice and expertise to guide us, but that doesn’t give the person we asked for advice from carte blanche to run our lives (or tell us our writing is crap if we don’t do what they say). I cannot count how many times I have given the same piece of feedback repeatedly to a writer (in many different ways), only to never have it be followed. Or the same piece of advice or insight to someone over and over again, and they still keep doing the thing that’s causing them trouble (and then kvetching about it, to boot!). And that’s okay. What they do or don’t do with my opinion is their thing. I am simply giving of myself and my time, and that is never wasted regardless of whether the person puts my words into action.


Not everyone fits into the same cookie cutter mold. My advice may be golden for one person and completely irrelevant to another. I do not know your path, your business, your company, your history, your current environment, your stressors, your health, your family or your mental and emotional state. All I know is that you asked a question and I answered it to the best of my ability, happy to do so. I’m not going to then rebuke you for doing something other than what I thought you should do because I have no right to. In the writing world, same principle: if I read your book and give you advice about how to make it awesome, that’s my definition of awesome based on my knowledge, expertise and research. But for all I know you keeping it just the way it is may result in the breakout best seller of the year. Or it may flop and never see a sale and then you’ll be able to reflect on why. At that point you might recall my feedback or not, but I will hammer this home as much as I can: it is not within my rights to force you to do anything with my guidance. Whether or not you put my advice, feedback, mentoring or coaching into practice is entirely up to you, as are the consequences – good or bad – of whatever decision you make!


How would you feel if someone said to you that because you have brown hair and brown eyes you don’t have a right to live life how you want to? Right, that’s what I thought. All of what I’m saying can be encompassed in that example. Tell someone you don’t like their hair brown when they dye it, but don’t think that gives you the right to control what color they choose to make their hair. Likewise, if someone tells you they don’t like your hair brown, but you love it, don’t change it. It’s your hair, after all.


All of this is not meant to give anyone ammunition to say they don’t need to listen to their beta readers, or their editors, or to their mentors in other walks of life. Rather, my goal is to ensure that the mentors/editors/beta readers of the world understand that they’re not the only person a mentee/writer will go to for advice/editing/feedback. And rightfully so. Going to only one person for advice or feedback on anything, whether it’s your outfit, your novel or if you should take xyz new job, will give you only that one person’s perspective. No matter how well-traveled or how old they are, one person’s view of the world is very narrow and extremely limited. And since we are all colored and shaped by the lives we’ve led and the experiences we have had, it’s dangerous to look to only one person to live and die by. Something that someone said thousands of years ago may be relevant today, or it may be a product of the times and not be relevant today. And that may change based on whoever is reading the quote or passage in question!


I hope I have given you a lot to think about, whether you are someone who gives advice (or beta reads or edits), or whether you are someone who seeks advice (or writes the thing needing betaing or editing). Whether or not you take this to heart for yourself, you can know that what you’ll get from me is this: my help is given freely and you are equally free to take it or leave it as you see fit. We all are.

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